The literacy challenge for our part-time education minister

I didn’t think Stephen Smith’s performance as Shadow Education Minister warranted his appointment as Minister, but creating a part-time Education Minister – Julia Gillard will have to combine it with being Deputy Prime Minister, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister and Minister for Social Inclusion – is bordering on bizarre. It has unfortunate echoes of the two Ministers for everything in the early days of the Whitlam government.

While the media was preoccupied yesterday with ministries and Opposition leaders (another eyebrow raising decision), the ABS issued a report showing just why we need a full-time education minister. It was their second adult literacy survey.

It shows a slight prose literacy improvement on 1996, but still nearly half of all Australians are below the level 3 skills regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’. The same is true of document literacy. (Prose literacy is understanding narrative texts; document literacy is the ability to locate and use information in various formats, including schedules, maps, tables and charts).

On the numeracy scale, more than half of all Australians were below skill level 3, and for a problem-solving scale, only 30% were at levels 3, 4 or 5.

There is also a further clue as to why 20% of graduates don’t have jobs suitable for graduates (pdf). By interesting coincidence, about 20% of bachelor-degree holders have only level 1 or 2 prose and document literacy. They are slightly worse on the numeracy scale, and much worse on the problem-solving scale. Further information is needed on whether these graduates are migrants, and their disciplinary backgrounds.

Regardless of the situation with graduates, there is clearly much work to be done to improve literacy. But will Gillard have any time to do it?